Archives For Cool Stuff

Airpods coffee

When Apple announced AirPods, the wireless earbuds, I thought they looked cool, but they didn’t really catch my attention. I already owned a pair of Bluetooth headphones, and regular earbuds have generally worked just fine in my ears.

And then people started to rave about them. As I mention in this week’s Practical Mac column for The Seattle Times, “… I began to see something unusual for modern Apple, with its deep marketing prowess and industry clout: enthusiastic word-of-mouth.”

After using them for a few weeks, I’m sold. They’re great, even with a few limitations (no volume control except via Siri, no quick pairing with the Apple TV). And AirPods offer the best first-encounter experience of any Apple product in recent memory, hands down.

Read the entire review here: AirPods turn out to be rare product that lives up to the hype.

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Soupzine

With the new year, I and many other people are trying to figure out ways we can help people and causes that need assistance. My friend Anne Livingston just created a great one: Soup Zine, a “hand-illustrated mini cookbook [that] shares easy recipes and pro tips for comforting soups to keep you warm all winter.” Anne is an amazing food photographer, professionally-trained cook, and writer who has also worked on Edible Seattle magazine, so right off you know the contents of Soup Zine are going to be good.

Even better: All proceeds from the sales of the $10 printed zine go to Earthjustice, a nonprofit environmental law organization working to combat climate change, advance clean energy, protect people’s health, and preserve natural wildlife.

I love this idea, both because it’s exciting to bring projects into the world, and because I can’t wait for the issue to arrive so I can cook up some soup.

Homekit plug light

I dipped my toes into HomeKit recently, and now I’m waist-deep into smart home technology. For my latest Practical Mac column at The Seattle Times, I look at several devices that are making my home better, as well as the effect it’s had on my family and I: Making a smart move with HomeKit smart-home devices.

Setting aside the technical considerations, what’s been most intriguing is how my family and I have responded to these little forays into living in a smart home. I was skeptical at first of the benefit of having lights that could be controlled from my phone — I do still remember how to flip a switch. But the key is in setting up schedules and scenes.

Now, many lights turn on by themselves: our porch light and living-room lights automatically come on at sunset and turn off at 1 a.m. (which is an obvious indicator if I’m still awake that I need to head to bed).

In my home office, the lights and a portable space heater turn on in the morning so my workspace is warm and welcoming when I start working. And if I leave the house on errands or to take a walk, the space heater is automatically turned off when I go past a geofence surrounding my house, so I don’t accidentally leave the heater running all day.

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Group test2

Here’s something a long time coming. I’m thrilled to announce that I have a new guide at The Wirecutter: The Best 360-Degree Camera.

This is by far one of the most interesting projects I’ve done. 360-degree cameras capture the entire sphere around the photographer, in stills or video, which is great for getting a better sense of a scene beyond what a typical photo frame offers. But this photography also has many challenges, such as where you the photographer appears—many of us are happy to hide behind the camera, but in this case there is no “behind” the camera.

It was also a challenge to set parameters, because the cameras we chose for final testing take different approaches to the task of capturing a 360-degree scene. They’re not like most cameras where a lot of the features are the same from model to model and you look to see which one has better resolution or low-light capabilities. For example, the Ricoh Theta S, Nikon KeyMission 360, and Samsung Gear 360 each use two extreme–wide-angle lenses to capture two images, which are then stitched together in the camera as one image. However, the 360fly 4K designers opted to use just one lens to avoid the stitching altogether, which unfortunately means you end up with dead area in the image where the lens can’t see.

When viewed in the cameras’ apps or in a few locations online such as Facebook, Flickr, or YouTube, you can explore the entire scene by dragging the image. If you’re on a mobile device, some sites like Facebook enable you to turn your body and move the device to view everything. It’s a very cool effect! (The image below is hosted at Flickr and should be interactive. You can also see a few more at this Flickr album.)

theta_vancouver_bw_etool

In the end, it wasn’t just image resolution or form factor that made one rise above the others, but a combination of hardware, software, and experience to capture the images, and then the process of doing something with the files (which has its own complexities). I’ll let you read the guide to see which one was the winner. I was surprised, and I was the one doing the research!

360-degree photography is really in its early days, and I think this category will get even more interesting in the near future as customers decide what to do with the cameras and manufacturers cater to those whims. In the meantime, the shots you get can really stand apart from traditional cameras in many ways.

If you like the work I do, please consider signing up for my low-volume newsletter that I use to announce new projects, items, and giveaways that I think my readers would be interested in.

mbp-2016-spgry-family-onwhite

While Apple was introducing the new 2016 MacBook Pro during its recent media event, I was ready to place my order. My workhorse 2010 MacBook Pro, which I’ve Frankenstein’d in various ways to eke out more life, is now enough behind the curve that it’s time for an upgrade. (It’ll make a great Mac for my daughter to use.)

Apple’s events build in a predictable manner: introduce the new product, play a video about it, go over the technical details and new features, play another video about it (often with plenty of design and engineering photography to make one salivate), and then, finally, reveal the specifications, price, and availability. The floating breakdowns in the MacBook Pro design video are stunning:

But like a lot of people, I didn’t order one right away. The 16 GB RAM limit was the first thing to make me pause; my current machine is maxed out at 8 GB and I often hit that ceiling when I’m editing photos and running many applications in the background. We’ve since learned that the limit is due to a Intel’s memory chips to maintain acceptable battery life using the available processors.

Also, these new models are expensive. Macs have often cost more (although just as often they shake out pretty even or better when you configure competitors’ low-priced computers evenly), but these are definitely a few hundred dollars more than previous models. I realized that I could buy an existing 27-inch 5K iMac (announced last year) and a new base 13-inch MacBook for roughly the same price. That initiated a lot of internal analysis.

And I still bought one. As I was deliberating, I wrote up the following list of reasons this MacBook Pro, at this time, is the new computer for me. Let me reinforce that this is my situation; I’m not trying to be universal or tell you what to buy. But I thought that posting my thought process might help other people who are also weighing many of the same questions.

If I’d gone through these mental exercises in the hours after the machines were announced, I’d be getting one two weeks earlier. Ah well. Now I’m looking at the first week of December.

Why I’m Buying One

Here we go (generally in no particular order):

  1. At the top of my list, and certainly one of the most important factors, is that I spend all of my professional time on my Mac. It’s not like the machine won’t get used.
  2. My 2010 MacBook Pro has served me well, but it’s old. It doesn’t have modern technologies like Handoff, a Retina display, USB 3, or Thunderbolt of any variety. In fact, even though I’ve written about all of these things, none of the machines I own include them. (For things like Handoff I’ve had to borrow machines or have used review units that go back to Apple.) For the record, in addition to my workhorse MacBook Pro, I also own an Early 2009 Mac mini and a Mid 2011 Mac mini, both of which are used as internal servers and test machines.
  3. I often do client work that requires me to use applications such as Photoshop, InDesign, Lightroom, etc., where more horsepower and a better screen will be assets. Making the jump from my existing MacBook Pro to one with modern internal hardware will hopefully be quite a shift.
  4. The new MacBook Pro runs macOS. I know, obvious, but I have no desire to switch to Windows. I’m not knocking people who use Windows (and I do, too, in emulation), but it’s not the everyday OS for me. Too often critics fail to take this into account when they’re obsessing over specs. Sure, go get a laptop with better specs and a lower price point, and have fun when ads start popping up everywhere.
  5. While it’s true that I spend much of my time in my home office, I’m a mobile worker. I sometimes work in coffee shops or on my couch. Although a 27-inch iMac 5K is sorely tempting, it means I can’t do much of my work if I’m not sitting in front of it. If I was solely writing about general topics, I could envision using an iPad Pro as my carry-around computer. (Believe me, I’ve spent a lot of time over the past six months pondering this.) However, I already carry a 9.7-inch iPad, and although the 12.9-inch iPad Pro is a great device, it’s too big for me on an everyday basis.
  6. I upgraded to the 1 TB storage option (an extra $400) because I currently have two 512 GB SSDs in my Frankenstein’d MacBook Pro, and use most of it. (I wrote about replacing the optical drive with an SSD at TidBITS.) I believe I could get down to 512 GB with a lot of work, but I’m concerned about having enough overhead to handle scratch files and such for media that I work on. The storage in modern MacBook Pros isn’t upgradeable in the future. Also, the storage is fast—speedier than most standalone SSDs.
  7. Similarly, I paid $100 more to double the memory in the graphics card, from 2 GB to 4 GB. That’s because many apps now take advantage of graphics processing to speed up operations (like image and media apps), but also because I want this machine to last longer. It’s not lost on me that I continue to use my MacBook Pro after 6 years of daily work.
  8. I look forward to Thunderbolt 3 and getting an external RAID that can store my photos and media library. Right now I have about 2.1 TB of data stored on an old Drobo that is just glacial over FireWire 800. It’s painful. That said, I’m holding off on that until Thunderbolt 3 is more widespread. In the meantime, I ordered a USB 3.0-only G-Technology drive to replace the Drobo in the short term. (More on external purchases below.)
  9. Space Gray. Space. Gray.
  10. I could save some money by buying a 13-inch model, but it feels cramped to me. I’ve used a 13-inch MacBook Pro provided by a client this year, and it’s fine, but especially when I’m working on photos, the 15-inch model is better. Also, the 15-inch model uses full Thunderbolt 3 connections on each of its four ports; the 13-inch offers limited connection on two of the four ports.
  11. The Touch Bar is definitely interesting, but it’s not a deciding factor. It will probably get limited use on my desk at home, because I connect to an external monitor and use the MacBook Pro’s display as a second screen. I am, however, eager to see how non-power-users will react to the Touch Bar. I’ve spent my career encouraging people to use keyboard shortcuts, and yet I think that most people don’t bother with them. Having logical options appear as a button on the keyboard—without having to junk up the interface on the screen—could be great for discoverability.
  12. Related to above: I’d love to get a new 5K monitor that would work with the MacBook Pro, but I’m not made of money. The LG announced at the event seems good—and Apple even reduced the price to $974 through the end of the year!—but we’ll have to see more specifics. I may get The Wirecutter’s pick for a 4K 27-inch display, but for now I’ll stick with what I have. It’s not great, but it’s paid for.
  13. Battery life! Right now my 2010 MacBook Pro is lucky to get about an hour’s worth of battery time before it needs to be plugged in. I could have had the battery replaced at some point, but I knew that a new machine was coming up soon and it didn’t seem worth the expense. FruitJuice tells me that it’s at 56% of capacity, having clocked 1198 out of 1000 recharge cycles (Apple’s estimate for battery life). Apple is advertising the new MacBook Pro as getting 10 hours of battery life on a charge, which sounds luxurious! In fact, lost in the moans about Apple abandoning the MagSafe connector is the idea behind that, having so much battery life, you won’t be plugged into power if you’re out and about. I won’t need to. I’ll still keep the included power adapter in my bag, but hopefully I won’t need to take it out often.
  14. The wide color gamut screen.
  15. Thin and light. I agree with the arguments that Apple’s obsession with making every product thinner and lighter is getting to be overkill. Why not make it the same size and add a bigger battery? But I can also say that I do like thin and light. My MacBook Pro, itself thinner and lighter than some laptops I’ve carried in the past, is still kinda bulky and heavy in my bag. And even though this machine is old, I swear to you that every day when I pick it up, I enjoy—real tactile enjoyment—that its unibody construction is so solid. When I buy a new piece of technology, I want to feel like I’m embracing the future. And whether that’s an iPhone 7 or MacBook Pro, Apple design delivers.

Pricing

I ordered the top-end MacBook Pro configuration, which includes a 2.7 GHz quad-core i7 processor and 16 GB of memory. I opted to not increase the processor to 2.9 GHz for $200.

I upgraded the storage from 512 GB to 1 TB for $400. Although 2 TB sounds lovely, and perhaps in six years I’ll regret it, another $1,200 felt too steep for me.

I spent $100 to increase the graphics card to the Radeon Pro 460 with 4GB memory.

I did spend the $349 for AppleCare+. In my decades of owning Apple laptops, it’s been helpful every time. Even if it hurts to pay that upfront (and double injury when you see that first “Your order has shipped!” notice, and realize it’s just for the box with the AppleCare information).

Grand total, with estimated tax (and free shipping! Damn right they should include free shipping) was $3,998.20.

Yeah. Ouch. I know.

So, before I pulled the trigger on the order, I went back and calculated how much I’ve spent on my 2010 MacBook Pro over the years. Including AppleCare, tax, a RAM upgrade (to 8 GB), and SSDs, I spent $3,785.

So, the new machine costs more, and it’s more all at once instead of parceled over several years, but it’s not terribly more expensive.

However, that’s not the end. I also need accessories to bring everything up to modern standards. Of course, nothing I own has USB-C, so that meant ordering dongles and adapters. But to my surprise, that wasn’t as bad as I feared: an extra $400. Here’s how it broke down. (These all include affiliate links; if you order them from here I get a small percentage of the sale to help me pay it all off.)

  • Kanex USB-C to DVI Adapter 8.25 Inches (21 cm)-White: $17.82. My external monitor, an NEC MultiSync P221W, only has a DVI connector, so I need this.

  • CalDigit USB-C Docking Station: $149.99. Right now I plug everything individually into their ports on my MacBook Pro. With Thunderbolt 3/USB-C, I look forward to having most everything plug into this dock: Ethernet, USB (for a ScanSnap scanner, headset, iPhone and iPad occasionally, speakers, etc.). Not known offhand is whether I can connect an external hard disk toaster to this via USB 3.0 for duplicates I make to internal drives. I think so, but we’ll have to see.

  • G-Technology G-DRIVE USB 3.0 4TB External Hard Drive: $179.95. This is the drive that will replace my FireWire 800-based Drobo (which will go to one of the Mac minis). USB 3.0 is fast enough for what I do most of the time, and this is an affordable stopgap until I switch to Thunderbolt 3 down the line.

  • Anker PowerLine USB-C to USB 3.0 Cable: $6.99. This cable will connect the G-Drive to the MacBook Pro directly via USB 3. Oops—this has the wrong connector for the G-Drive. Let this be a lesson, kids: don’t shop for USB-C accessories really late at night!

  • Cable Matters USB 3.1 Type C (USB-C) to Type B (USB-B) Cable: $8.99. Here’s the cable to use with the G-Drive, with a USB-B connector.

  • AUKEY USB C to USB 3.0 Adapter (2 Pack): $7.99. Adapters for existing USB cables. I figure it’s good to have a couple in my bag for when I’m out and about. If I need to charge my iPhone 7 via the MacBook Pro, I can do it using one of these and my existing Lightning to USB cable; I don’t need to buy a dedicated Lightning to USB-C cable.

  • SanDisk Extreme Pro SD UHS-II Card USB-C Reader, $29. One thing I will miss on the MacBook Pro is a dedicated SD card slot. There are other, less-expensive card readers that plug into USB-C, but I went with this one so I can test faster transfer speeds in the future.

To be sure, this is a lot of money, especially all in one chunk. But my alternatives were to look into an iMac plus some mobile option (maybe even a basic MacBook), in which case I’d be chained to my office desk for some tasks; or wait a year and see if the next MacBook Pro models are better or cheaper. They’ll most certainly be better in some ways, but a year longer with my current machine isn’t a good option.

I hope this breakdown has been helpful to you, or at least mildly entertaining!

If you like the work I do, please consider signing up for my low-volume newsletter that I use to announce new projects, items, and giveaways that I think my readers would be interested in.

This topic came up with a friend over the weekend: Now that Apple is making a ceramic Apple Watch, how long before we see a ceramic iPhone? The always-excellent Greg Koenig of Luma Labs explains not only why we likely won’t see one for a while, but also gets across the sheer scale of manufacturing Apple’s current aluminum-based products.

Go read it now: Why Your Next iPhone Won’t Be Ceramic

And while you’re there, pick up one of Luma’s great camera straps.

Pink Morning Mist short

Over at Photoversity, I created a free set of presets for Aurora HDR that apply pre-cooked looks when editing images in Macphun’s impressive HDR application. However, when they released Aurora HDR 2017 last month, my presets disappeared!

After a bit of sleuthing, I discovered that Macphun changed the filename extension used by the presets. They still work, but the application doesn’t see them. Fortunately, that’s an easy fix, which I detailed on the Photoversity blog: How to Make Photoversity Presets Work in Aurora HDR 2017. If you’ve upgraded to Aurora HDR 2017 and don’t see the presets, go check it out.

This is also a good opportunity to remind you that I wrote an ebook about HDR that Macphun is giving away! And in that ebook is a code to buy my Aurora HDR Photoversity Guide at a special 40% discount.

If you like the work I do, please consider signing up for my low-volume newsletter that I use to announce new projects, items, and giveaways that I think my readers would be interested in.

Tco parallels 12

This is no longer a new idea, but I still feel a twinge of amazement when I can run Windows on my Mac. In the dark ages, the divide between Mac and Windows computers was almost too wide, and we relied on methods of sharing data that were like running across fraying rope bridges.

Now, whenever I need to test something in Windows or work on a project that has a Windows component (like when I was writing books about Photoshop Elements), I can open a virtualization program like Parallels Desktop and have a Windows environment running in a window on my Mac.

And it’s not just Windows. I have installations of macOS Sierra running in virtual machines, too, enabling me to test features without switching my main Mac over to beta software.

I’ve used Parallels and VMware Fusion in the past, but when VMware decided to abandon Fusion last year, that left only Parallels as the major virtualization product out there. They could have coasted as the sole survivor, but Parallels Desktop 12 feels to me like a big improvement over older versions.

But there’s a lot there. And this is where Joe Kissell’s new book, Take Control of Parallels Desktop 12 comes in. I had the pleasure of editing this title, and aside from getting to work with Joe’s clear and engaging text (seriously, he’s a joy to edit), I learned a lot about the new version.

Take Control of Parallels Desktop 12 is available now for just $15. That’s 170 pages of real-world advice, guidance, and plenty of illustrations to show you what you’re working with.

If you like the work I do, please consider signing up for my low-volume newsletter that I use to announce new projects, items, and giveaways that I think my readers would be interested in.

My esteemed colleague Julio Ojeda-Zapata knows that you should buy an iPad Pro if you’re in the market for a new tablet, but which model? The 12.9-inch model has a beautiful screen and faster performance, while the 9.7-inch model is a bit lighter and offers the True Tone display (and a wider color gamut).

In this TidBITS article, Julio breaks down the differences and spotlights the advantages of each: Comparing iPad Pro Technologies and Intangibles.

If you like the work I do, please consider signing up for my low-volume newsletter that I use to announce new projects, items, and giveaways that I think my readers would be interested in.

Tco slack basicsIf you’re not using Slack, there’s a good chance you will soon. Slack is a service for exchanging messages and data among groups. It’s not the first attempt at this type of software, but it’s certainly one of the most popular. Small businesses use it so employees can stay in touch no matter where they are. Large companies are deploying it among different departments and workgroups. And I have a Slack channel just for my wife and I; previously, we had to use a mishmash of Apple’s Messages, Skype, and whatever terrible corporate software happened to be used by her employer at the time. Now, when we need to chat about something during work hours, we know that Slack will let us reach each other regardless of which computer or device we’re using.

As you can imagine, Slack is mostly easy to use—once you get the hang of it. And getting the hang of it is the initial hurdle. Sure, you can fumble through it, but there’s a better way. Actually, there are two better ways.

My friend and occasional co-conspirator Glenn Fleishman has just published two Take Control ebooks about Slack. Take Control of Slack Basics is for most people who want to use (or discover that they need to get up to speed with) the service:

Slack is all about communication, so you’ll learn how to write, edit, and react to messages; use snippets, posts, and audio calls to collaborate with team members; and create and manage both channels and direct message conversations.

You’ll also see to configure Slack’s flexible notification system so you’re alerted appropriately but not nagged. Plus, Glenn covers how to search old messages effectively, how to make Slack your control center by centralizing reports from other services via integrations, and numerous techniques for improving your productivity in (and with) Slack.

Tco slack adminFor those who need to create and manage Slack channels, the companion book, Take Control of Slack Admin:

Based on hundreds of person-hours of testing, this book is designed to help both the novice admin and any IT staff tasked with managing Slack. Those getting started will learn how to plan and create a new team, configuring channels and administrative settings to shape how the team works. You’ll also learn how integrations can radically extend Slack’s capabilities, helping to make Slack a control center rather than just another communications stream.

Each book is only $15, but you can save 20% when you buy both (access either link above, and then click the Add Both to Cart button).

Glenn is a master authority on this information (as he is with many topics), and I’m glad he and Take Control have published these. Go get ’em!

If you like the work I do, please consider signing up for my low-volume newsletter that I use to announce new projects, items, and giveaways that I think my readers would be interested in.